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New Honduran Leadership Flouts Worldwide Censure

By William Booth and Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 30, 2009

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras, June 29 -- Honduras's new government vowed Monday to remain in power despite growing worldwide condemnation of the military-led coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya.

As leaders from across Latin America met in Nicaragua to demand that Zelaya be returned to office, hundreds of protesters in the Honduran capital were met with tear gas fired by soldiers surrounding the presidential palace. The new government ordered the streets cleared, and shopkeepers barricaded their doors. Residents rushed home as a 9 p.m. curfew was enforced.

Although the United States and its allies condemned the coup, the most vocal opposition -- along with threats of military intervention -- came from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who led a summit of leftist allies in Nicaragua that demanded Zelaya be reinstated. The Venezuelan populist, who led a failed coup in his own country in 1992 and survived one in 2002, said the Honduran people should rebel against the new government.

"We are saying to the coup organizers, we are ready to support a rebellion of the people of Honduras," Chávez said. "This coup will be defeated."

Chávez spent Monday in the meeting in Managua, attended by the leaders of Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and other countries allied with Honduras. "We have to be very firm, very firm. This cannot end until José Manuel Zelaya is returned to power, without condition," he said.

Three of Honduras's neighbors -- Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua -- said Monday that they would suspend overland trade with Honduras for 48 hours. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, reading a statement, said the suspension was a "first step" against the new government.

Chávez also said his country is cutting off oil shipments to Honduras, which has received Venezuelan petroleum under beneficial terms.

Earlier, Chávez had pledged to "overthrow" Roberto Micheletti, a Honduran congressional leader and member of Zelaya's party who was sworn in as president Sunday afternoon.

On Monday, Micheletti responded to Chávez's threat on Honduran radio, saying, "Nobody scares us."

Chávez's growing belligerence marks a clear challenge to the Obama administration to reverse the coup or suffer a loss of clout in the region.

Senior Obama officials said an overthrow of the Zelaya government had been brewing for days -- and they worked behind the scenes to stop the military and its conservative, wealthy backers from pushing Zelaya out. That the United States failed to stop the coup gives antagonists such as Chávez room to use events to push their vision for the region.

At dawn on Sunday, heavily armed troops burst into the presidential palace here, broke through the door of Zelaya's bedroom and roused him from bed. He told reporters guns were pointed at him and he was escorted from his official residence in pajamas. Later he was put on a Honduran military plane and flown into exile in Costa Rica.

Honduran leaders who supported his removal say Zelaya had overstepped his presidential powers by calling for a nonbinding referendum on how long a president can serve here. His critics say Zelaya was intent on using his populist rhetoric to maintain power after his term officially was to end in January.

Honduran military helicopters circled the capital all afternoon, as Micheletti met with his supporters and began to make appointments for a new cabinet, a signal that organizers of the military-led ouster of Zelaya were planning to hold firm.

"I am sure that 80 to 90 percent of the Honduran population is happy with what happened," Micheletti said, adding he had not spoken to any other Latin American head of state.

The coup appears to have been well organized. Sunday morning, as Zelaya was being ousted, local TV and radio stations went off the air. Cellphone and land-line communications remain jammed, and many numbers offered only a busy signal.

Zelaya, speaking to reporters in Managua, demanded that he be restored to power but said that violence was not an option.

He also said that many Hondurans had no idea about the worldwide condemnation of the coup because private television stations in his country blacked out coverage, playing cartoons and soap operas.

By early Monday night, another meeting of Latin American nations had begun in Managua, with such heavyweights as Mexico and the secretary general of the Organization of American States, José Miguel Insulza, criticizing Zelaya's opponents.

Across the Americas and Europe, leaders called for Zelaya's reinstatement. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, president of Brazil, said his government would not recognize a Honduran administration not headed by Zelaya. "We in Latin America can no longer accept someone trying to resolve his problem through the means of a coup," Lula said.

The United Nations condemned the coup and said Micheletti should make way for Zelaya's return. Zelaya was invited to address the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday. Zelaya also said he planned to return to Honduras and reclaim the presidency.

The ouster in the poor, agricultural country of 7 million people revived memories of coup-driven turmoil in Latin America. Zelaya, who has spoken frequently with reporters, has been quick to mention the political chaos that military overthrows have traditionally caused.

"Are we going to go back to the military being outside of the control of the civil state?" Zelaya said. "Everything that is supposed to be an achievement of the 21st century is at risk in Honduras."

Forero reported from Caracas, Venezuela.

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